Brief History – Colonial Period


The founders of the church in this country were colonists from the Palatinate and other parts of western Germany and also from Switzerland. The first minister, Samuel Guldi, came from Bern to America in 1710. The first purely German congregation was founded at Germania Ford, on the Rapidan, Virginia, 1714. But the first complete congregational organization took place 1725, when John Philip Boehm, a schoolmaster, organized the congregations at Falkner Swamp, Skippach, and White Marsh, Pennsylvania, according to the principles of Calvin, and adopted as standards the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort. George Michael Weiss came in 1727 and organized the Philadelphia congregation. Boehm was ordained 1729 at New York by the Dutch Reformed ministers under the authority of the classis of Amsterdam in Holland. In 1742 Count Zinzendorf tried to unite all the German churches and sects in Pennsylvania into one organization with the Moravians as the leading body. This was opposed by Boehm and Guldi.

In 1746 Michael Schlatter came from St. Gall, Switzerland, commissioned by the Reformed Church of the Netherlands to organize the Germans of Pennsylvania. After traveling much among the congregations, he completed their organization, begun by Boehm, by forming the coetus at Philadelphia Sept. 29, 1747, at which there were present four ministers and representatives from twelve charges. The second coetus (1748) completed the organization by adopting as its standards the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort. It also adopted a constitution, which was Boehm’s constitution of 1725 somewhat enlarged. In 1751 Schlatter returned to Europe, traveling through Holland, Germany, and Switzerland seeking aid for the Pennsylvania churches, and returned with six young ministers appointed by the Reformed Church of the Netherlands. Some effort was made, 1741-51, toward union with the Dutch Reformed and Presbyterians, but the attempt failed. The coetus continued under the control of the Reformed Church of the Netherlands, which sent thirty-eight ministers to America and spent about $20,000 on the American churches. The actions of the coetus were reviewed by the deputies of the Synods of North and South Holland and by the classis of Amsterdam. This relation to Holland continued until 1792, when the coetus virtually declared itself independent.

Source: J. I. Good’s Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism Cleveland OH: Central Publishing House, 1904, p. 224-247; Electronic version, © 2004, The Synod of the Reformed Church in the U.S.

The Founding of the Reformed Church

Long before our German forefathers came to America in the 18th century, the Reformed from Holland had started a church at New York (New Amsterdam) in 1628 which is now the oldest Evangelical Church in this country. The first governor of New York (1626) was Peter Minuit who was an officer in the Reformed church. He later (1638) founded a colony of Swedes in Delaware. Our German forefathers however, did not come to America in large numbers until about 1720, when they began settling the Schuylkill and Perkiomen Valleys of Pennsylvania, and later going farther into the wilderness of Lehigh and Lancaster Counties of the same state.

The first Reformed congregation in America was organized by Rev. Henry Haeger, who came to Virginia in 1714. The first Reformed minister who came to Pennsylvania was Rev. Samuel Guldin. He had been a minister at Bern, Switzerland and came to America in 1710 and lived in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He occasionally preached but did not do anything toward organizing congregations. The man who organized the Reformed church was Rev. John Philip Boehm. He had been a schoolmaster at Worms in Germany and came to America in 1720. In 1725, as there were no ministers to preach there to the Reformed, those who lived at Falkner’s Swamp, Skippack and White Marsh, Pa., prevailed on Boehm to become their pastor even though he had not yet been ordained. He finally, reluctantly yielded to their wishes. He organized those three congregations and later congregations at Tulpehocken and Conestoga.

In 1727 Rev. George Michael Weiss arrived at Philadelphia and founded the First Reformed church there. He soon came into conflict with Boehm, for he felt Boehm was acting irregularly because he was preaching without ordination. The difficulty was finally overcome by the ordination of Boehm by the Dutch Reformed ministers at New York in 1729.

In 1746 Rev. Michael Schlatter came to America, authorized by the Reformed church of Holland to organize the German Reformed. He completed Boehm’s work of organization by gathering the various congregations into a Coetus which held its first meeting at Philadelphia, September 29th, 1747. There were present four ministers, Boehm, Weiss, Rieger, and Schlatter and twenty-seven elders representing twelve congregations.

The History of the Coetus

In 1751 Schlatter, who had traveled extensively in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and even Virginia returned to Europe to get more aid and the next year he returned to America with six young ministers of whom Otterbein and Stoy were the most prominent. In 1754 Schlatter left the Coetus and lived near Philadelphia where he died. The Reformed church of Holland sent over a number of ministers of whom Weyberg, Hendel, Helffrich, and Helffenstein were the most prominent. These with a number of ministers raised up in this country, as Weber, Weymer, Wack and others laid good foundations for our church.

During the Revolution our church suffered severely. Most of the Germans sided with the patriots against England, although there were a few Royalists who clung to the King.

One of the most eloquent ministers in the colonies was Rev. J. J. Zubly of Savannah, Ga. He became prominent at the beginning of the Revolution and was elected to the Congress but later fell under suspicion and was exiled by the patriots. But others were very outspoken patriots. Rev. Dr. Weyberg of Philadelphia preached so eloquently to the Hessians in the British army that they were inclined to desert. His church was used by them as a hospital and after their departure, when it was reopened for worship, he preached on Ps. 79:1, “O God, the heathen are come into Thine inheritance, etc.” Rev. Dr. Hendel’s patriotism was so well known that when he went over the mountains to Lykens Valley to preach he was guarded by the Reformed lest he would be attacked by the Indians. General Nicolas Herkimer, the hero of the battle of Oriskany in New York State who died on the battlefield, was German Reformed. But the most prominent Reformed officer was Baron Steuben. He came to America from service in the army of King Frederick the Great of Prussia. He became the great drillmaster of our army. After his coming the regulars of the Continental army were never beaten in a fair fight. The effect of the Revolution on the church was unfortunate. Many of the ministers were unpaid or paid in continental money which was almost worthless. Some of the congregations were overrun by armies, as Germantown and Skippack. The attention of the people was diverted from sacred things and almost no ministers were raised up for the church. In view of these various difficulties the Coetus appointed a fast-day for the church in 1779. At the beginning of the war the memorial service on the death of General Montgomery, Feb. 19th, 1776 was held in the First Reformed Church of Philadelphia. And after Washington’s death the Society of Cincinnati composed of the officers of the Revolutionary army, held memorial services in that church, February 22nd, 1800.

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